Congress

Fish in a Barrel: Reporters Steamed at GOP Retreat

Press kept safely penned away from lawmakers

As House Republicans enjoyed their annual retreat here this week relaxed in half-zip sweaters, they were protected from an all-too-familiar nuisance: reporters.

Journalists used to covering Congress in the long hallways of the Capitol were instead confined to an inoperative seafood restaurant two parking lots away from the Hyatt Cambridge, where lawmakers met on the bank of the Choptank river to plot policy strategies on immigration, the debt ceiling and more. When House Speaker John Boehner and his top lieutenants spoke to reporters Thursday morning, Boehner stood behind five eagle-topped American flags and a black curtain. Behind the cameras and 50-odd journalists was a sign: “The Crab Pot: Where All the Crabs Get Steamed!”

But it was the reporters who felt like they got steamed.

Complaints of access were rampant among journalists at the two-day conference on Thursday and Friday. Of four news conferences scheduled, two—helpfully titled “An America That Works for Women” and “An America That Works to Protect Taxpayers”—were cancelled, including the only one slated for Friday.

“While it’s been a real treat being locked in this empty restaurant with all of you fine people, we get far more access in the basement of the Capitol on any given day when Congress is in session,” said BuzzFeed‘s Kate Nocera. “I know things come up and press conferences get cancelled but this has not been the most productive use of my time. We did get to enjoy the river view of Cambridge, Maryland for one more day so let’s look on the bright side here.”

When lawmakers were ushered into the restaurant to feed the press, they squeezed past the set of booths, tables and laptop wires to the podium, answered a few questions, and then hopped in a van back to their hotel. At one point, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) came over unannounced for a briefing on the 2014 midterm elections, only to have to compete with an NBC reporter taping a segment a few feet over. Later, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) taped a CNN interview surrounded awkwardly by reporters and then quickly left. A Capitol police officer, according to Roll Call, warned journalists that their press credentials would be revoked if they went near the Congressmen hotel. After the leadership released principles for immigration reform Thursday—the biggest news of the retreat—no more news conferences were held, and no members came by to chat.

“The retreat isn’t a press conference,” a House leadership aide told TIME. “It is essentially an extended conference meeting of internal member discussions. The access this year was no different than any other year and in fact, you all got more face time with members than previous years.”

It’s a far cry from daily life at the Capitol, where anyone can walk up to a member after a vote and get a reasonably authentic reaction. But when everyone hears the same sources, the opportunity for anything distinct gets steamed like crabs.

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